As the world begins to open back up after months of isolation due to the pandemic, many companies are choosing to maintain a hybrid workforce, allowing some employees to continue to work from home. In doing so, though, they face a challenge: how to maintain remote employee engagement.
“With most business leaders in the U.S. opting for a hybrid work model post-COVID, many HR leaders are working to ensure that employees who continue to choose to work from home are still engaged and feel like valued members of their companies,” says Mindy Honcoop, Chief People Officer at TCP Software.
The pandemic has taught organizations a lot about how virtual technologies can be effectively used to build employee engagement and support a hybrid workforce. In fact, according to Gallup research, “U.S. employee engagement increased to 39% in January, up from 36% late last year.”
Boost Employee Engagement via Virtual Team Meetings and Activities
Susan Kuczmarski is the author of several books, including the newly released leadership book Lifting People Up: The Power of Recognition. When working across multiple locations, Kuczmarski recommends leveraging technology to keep remote and in-office employees connected. “Have regular Zoom meetings where people share what’s new in the market domestically and globally,” she recommends. “Ideas come from everywhere,” she says. “Always look for avenues from where you can build and engage with each other. Collaboration creates a renewed sense of trust.”
Video technology can be used for everything from workplace training to virtual team meetings and activities designed to boost remote employee engagement.
“Video technology is essential in keeping remote workers connected,” says Suzie Smibert, Executive Vice President and Chief Information Technology Officer at the OvareGroup. “We encourage everyone to turn on their cameras for video conferences. It’s important from a business perspective, so you can read the room during a meeting to see if everyone comprehends the information being conveyed or if a meeting is running too long and people are starting to disengage.” It’s also important, she says, for building relationships.
Smibert herself joined OvareGroup during the pandemic. Though she lives and works in Canada, Smibert has coworkers all over the U.S. that she considers to be good friends despite never meeting in person. Even the minor glitches that can come with video interactions have served to build workplace culture and camaraderie, she says. “There is so much chemistry between us because we are working together and sharing personal moments too, like when one of our kids screams in the background or our dog starts barking.” These video interactions have helped support employee engagement.
“The only thing I don’t know about my colleagues in the United States is how tall anyone is since we are all usually sitting down,” Smibert says.
Avoid Taking a “Big Brother” Approach When Managing Remote Employees
Technology can enable many things, including the ability to keep tabs on in-office as well as remote employee engagement. But tread with caution here, says Smibert. At OvareGroup, she says, “We made a decision to focus on work output and to treat our employees like the professional adults they are,” she says. “We do not use technology to validate when or how our employees are working.” Many companies, she says, put technology in place to “track how long people are logged in during the day, how many keystrokes they’ve hit, or their camera comes on every so often to validate if they’re at their desk. We felt that was damaging to our culture and our team.”
Make Sure Managers Are Prepared
Managing remote teams training is critical to ensure that managers have the skills they need to lead in a remote or hybrid workplace environment. It’s simply not the same as managing people in person, says Tony Zorc, a technology entrepreneur, CEO of Accounting Seed, and the author of Iconoclasm: A Survival Guide in the Post-Pandemic Economy.
“When you’re working virtually, management becomes a crucial skillset as the manager needs to read between the lines and understand what’s going on without the privilege of being able to drop by a subordinate’s office,” Zorc says.
Managers must also understand the importance of ongoing communication, feedback and support for remote employees. Citing research from McKinsey, Paul Keijzer writes for Business2Community, “being rewarded and recognized for work is one of employees’ top concerns during the COVID-19 era.” McKinsey’s survey results show that “organizations can achieve a 55 percent improvement in engagement by addressing employees’ need for work recognition through nonfinancial means.”
Ensure Plenty of Two-Way Communication Options to Keep Remote Employees Engaged
HR teams, says Honcoop, “can implement listening tools, like channels where employees can share real-time feedback, peer recognition, or distribute surveys and pulse checks.” These inputs, she says, can help to “proactively identify gaps and make data-informed decisions that matter for their workforce.”
An increase in hybrid work means HR is a step further removed from its customers—employees, says Honcoop. “With listening tools, HR teams can create a continuous feedback loop between their department and every employee-whether in-person or remote.”
But knowing the importance of two-way communication channels and having them in place to keep remote employees engaged are two very different things, Caitlin Nobes reports in a Business2Community article: “64% of HR leaders say an always-on feedback tool is essential to an engagement listening program, but only 20% have this kind of tool in place,” she writes.
Think Outside the Box
Not every in-person workplace connection is all about business. Remote connections should not be either. During the pandemic, Zorc found unique ways to keep his remote employees engaged and help them feel like they were still part of a community with strong company culture. From virtual coffee breaks to a company talent show, he feels that he found the right ways to keep employees engaged.
“Hosting or sponsoring virtual wellness and fitness sessions is a great way to offer employees a perk that can really help them feel better in general,” says Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications and the author of Public Relations for Dummies and Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOs. “Monthly Zoom workouts or wellness sessions, providing stipends for at-home workout equipment, or even offering fitness subscriptions are great ways to help them prioritize their own fitness and wellness.”
Even after returning to the office, it’s likely that employees will continue to use virtual tools to connect with remote team members. By being mindful of the ways that technology can be used to boost in-office and remote employee engagement, organizations can effectively help their managers and HR leaders engage employees—wherever they are.
For more tips on navigating the remote workplace environment, check out Class’s Four Strategies for Training Remote Employees.